Panelosophy - Retro Hits
by Chloe Ferguson
In the upcoming year of licensing, old is new. Barely two months into 2008, and the list of pre-1980 manga titles set to street is both sizeable and various. From Tezuka to Takemiya, the trend of mining manga's history is here to stay.
When it comes to older titles, U.S. manga companies have been less than forthcoming, largely thanks to the awkward transitional period of figuring out just who older titles should be aimed at. Viz tentatively broached the topic early in 2002, first releasing volume two of Osamu Tezuka's Phoenix as a standalone single book, while later (and rather haltingly) releasing the other volumes in the series. The effort proved less than successful, but Viz's handling of Phoenix was an unfortunate victim of hazy target marketing and minimal support; the book has always been a rara avis in bookstores and failed to strike a chord with any particular readers.
Therein lay the marketers' conundrum - Who would buy older titles? With minimal other media tie-ins, none of the standard "new series" buzz and a manga market just beginning its expansive growth in the U.S., the atmosphere at the time proved to be too stifling to go out on a limb and start releasing dated series to the mass market.
Nonetheless, in 2003, Vertical began releasing Tezuka's Buddha with a slick new cover redesign and a clear target audience of older readers, perhaps even those who had yet to pick up manga. Since then, older titles have carved out a distinctive niche: manga for the comic literati; mass market enough to merit space in a bookstore, but with an appeal distinctly different (and perhaps slightly more pretentious) than standard shonen or shojo fare. Yet larger licensing companies have been slow to move in acquiring older licenses, as it's undeniable that the best-selling titles are brand-name, 12- to16-year-old age-bracket shojo and shonen.
The result is a smattering of smaller companies picking up all sorts of older material. From Drawn & Quarterly, jaPress and Vertical, to Last Gasp and PictureBox, you don't need an arsenal of licenses under your belt to get in on the older action. Titles run equally across the board, and continue to multiply in variety. What began with Tezuka has now expanded to gekiga titles and the Year 24 and Post Year 24 group, the women mangaka who busted the field for shojo manga wide open in Japan during the 1960s to 1970s.
There remains, however, a flipside to this perfect formula. Older manga has now become synonymous with an older demographic, creating some serious gaps in the market, creating a distressing situation where a meaningful group of titles can fall through the cracks. Most older titles out on the market pander to older readers in their content, generally mixing moral philosophizing with heavy themes and, of course, plenty of death, angst and weltschmerz. This leaves little room for older titles barren of the above mentioned traits, namely those aimed in their original runs at younger age groups. Tezuka's Black Jack may have market potential, but his Princess Knight apparently does not.
Thankfully, there remain signs of a willingness to keep branching out, as Vertical plans to street Dororo in the upcoming year and - strange but welcome - manga imprint CMX continues putting out volumes of From Eroica with Love and Swan. Past titles, it seems, may still have some growing up to do in the present.